Book of the Week: Hacking Capitalism. Part Three: From class struggle to play struggle

We continue our presentation of Johan Soderbergh’s book with a last excerpt about perhaps the key concept of the book: Play Struggle.

Johan Soderbergh:

“The notion of hackers becoming ‘revolutionaries just for fun’ would have appealed to the eighteenth century poet Friedrich Schiller. Disappointed by the failure of the French Revolution, he sat down to ponder over how to make it work better the next time. Friedrich Schiller saw the ‘aesthetic play-drive’ as the primary force which could foster a more wholesome human being, whose maturing would also create and be able to sustain a post-revolutionary aesthetic state. Schiller meant that the aesthetic education of man was necessary to heal the rift within man caused by specialisation: “[. . .] If man is ever to solve the problem of politics in practice he will have to approach it through the problem of the aesthetic, because it is only through Beauty that man makes his way to Freedom.” Both adherers and critics of Schiller have pigeonholed him in the tradition of romanticism. Marxist scholars have followed Marx’s lead and passed over Schiller’s work as a footnote in German, idealist philosophy. The noteable exception was Herbert Marcuse. He declared his indebtedness to the old poet for his own life-long investigation into the liberating potential of aesthetics and play. Shiller’s philosophy ought to be reclaimed from the fine art scene and high-browed poetry. It would do him more justice if his words were applied to the politics that flow from the ‘beauty of the baud’ and the play with source code in the computer underground.

Herbert Marcuse is best known for deploring the one-dimensional rationality of technology. Today, with the rise of a ‘creative industry’ and a cultural economy, art, language, and fantasy too have been put to work and incorporated in instrumentalist thinking. Conversely, however, technology is aestheticised and put to play. A hacker does not speak about a program script in terms of functionality. Neat source code is a matter of good taste. Aesthetics is the organising principle of their play, which, mostly by accident, also produces working computer applications. A paraphrase of Friedrich Schiller can underline the ramifications of what just has been said: The object of hackers’ play is the beauty of the baud and its goal is software freedom. This reasoning is also consistent with how Marcuse envisioned that the instrumentality of technology could be resolved in modern society. Technology had to be returned to its origin in craftsmanship. Since the day when techne was split between useful arts and fine art proper, technological development has been defined by utilitarianism, while poetry has been relegated to the domain of the unreal and inconsequential. At least that is how things generally come across. A closer look will reveal that a play element has persisted throughout the history of technology. To the side of industrial and military innovations, there have also been innovations made purely for the sake of amusement. These technologies flourished in the renaissance courts. It was here that engineers of the day found their outlet since they were kept at bay from entering the industry by trade guilds. Architecture, gardens, water works, pyrotechnics, and automata are some examples. Moreover, to the list can be added cabinets, bestiaries, and scientific experiments that were as much performed as researched. It is this marginal and aristocratic lineage of technological development that has been picked up, and, to some degree, democratised, by hackers, by radio amateurs, and hobbyists.

The first generation of hackers nurtured a dream of making computer resources accessible. Members in the Homebrew Computer Club envisioned a small computer ‘able to run on the kitchen table’. They were in part motivated by a desire to play with those machines; in part they were aware of the political importance of democratising computer technology. Present-day hackers pursue the same mixture of play and politics within the technological platform of small computers and open-edited software handed down to them by the first generation. The passion for writing software code is contagious and easily spills over to other fields of doing. A popular sideline within the computer underground is to build mechanical replicas of classic computer games and exhibit these gadgets at hacker conferences. The step is a short one to more ambitious hardware projects, such as the OScar project. It is a collaboration between car engineers and tinkerers to design an ‘open source car’. What is gradually taking shape within the hacker movement at this moment is an extension of the dream that was pioneered by the members of the Homebrew Computer Club. It is the vision of a universal factory able to run on the kitchen table. The idea is not as far-fetched as it first might seem. Development trends towards flexible production within industry are pushing in the same direction. Researchers at the MIT laboratory, for instance, have experimented with computer-aided manufacturing facilities small enough to fit into a single room and easy enough to operate by lay people after a short, introductory course. The facility can be used to cut, solder, cast, compress, etc. almost any material into a finished product. Likewise, a group of engineers in Brighton try to construct a ‘self-replicating ‘rapid prototyper’ that can mould everyday items out of plastic. The performance and significance of these research projects are open to dispute. In most cases, hardware developed from below will proceed through the novel combination of mass-produced, off-the-shelf electronic parts. More important than the individual technologies is that these dreams are now being articulated. This is not how cadres of revolutionaries visualised the ‘expropriation of the expropriators’. Nonetheless, the desire for a ‘desktop factory’ amounts to the same thing as the reappropriation of the means of production. The seizure is unfolding as new productive relations are being invented in play.”

Book: Johan Söderberg. Hacking Capitalism: The Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) Movement. Routledge, 2007

1 Comment Book of the Week: Hacking Capitalism. Part Three: From class struggle to play struggle

  1. AvatarPatrick Anderson

    A ‘desktop factory’ avoids the difficult issue of cooperative ownership of the physical means of production, but cannot be applied in all cases.

    For instance, how will we ever own a network or a physical community meeting place? What about *real* factories and farms that we could otherwise use current (and even ancient) technology to compete against the Capitalists NOW through efficiency of scale if we could only figure out how to cooperatively own those physical sources of production?

    Fancy, new, and in many cases still imaginary technology will eventually allow individual ownership of more of SOME types of physical means of production, but if we can solve the difficulty of fractional ownership, we could start TODAY with just Land, Water, Seeds and Sun.

    Does anyone else see this as an issue worth considering, or am I just missing the work that others are already doing on it?

    If it IS important to others, why do we keep trying to skirt the issue by dreaming of material fabricators and desktop construction?

    Notice that useful fungus, plants and animals have always ‘fabricated’ the raw materials of the best food, drugs, cloth, soap. Many of these organisms are small enough to fit on a desktop and are solar powered. Even so, there is intense hunger in the world for a much different reason.

    The reason for poverty is a systemic issue based on a misunderstanding of profit. Most of those that DO currently own the physical sources of production have the odd notion that keeping price above cost is a measure of their success instead of understanding it as a plea from the consumer in need of the product of those sources.

    Capitalism is the practice of keeping Capital (the means of production) away from the consumer to insure price does not meet cost, for when the consumers of apples are the owners of the trees, they may hire others and pay them wages, but profit is zero because price and cost are the same.

    The forces keeping consumers from Capital is not obvious. It is not that the current owners are ‘bad’, but that they measure their success based on keeping price above cost which requires that “their” consumers not have access to the means of production. The current owners are not directly stopping us from organizing cooperative ownership for ourselves, but the problem comes in that we just find it easier to just buy the products from these Capitalists while enduring the inefficiency of profit.

    And when any group of consumers does finally get tired of being overcharged, they may start another business or organization that intends to do away with that problem, but it invariably either intends to also keep price above cost (is a for-profit corp) – which requires the consumers not become co-owners, or, even if it is a ‘non-profit’, it still does nothing to help the new consumer get a foothold in the organization.

    Non-profits do not do the right thing either because they are owned and operated solely by their originators instead of that ownership (and therefore control) incrementally flowing to each new user as fractional and divisible ownership of the whole when those participants pay price above cost. Instead, the profit pads the wages of the “committee members” or is spent in ways they see fit without allowing the consuming minority to split/divide/fork the organization as they could if they had REAL and divisible ownership.

    Patrick Anderson
    President, Personal Sovereignty Foundation

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